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Candlelight Pavilion’s “Peter Pan”: Tweaking the Nose of Tradition, Done Well

Gavin Juckette (l.) as Peter, and Randy Ingram (r.) as Captain Hook battle for the Lost Boys and the Darling children in Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater’s “Peter Pan”

Children who grew up when I did are divided into two camps: those who think the best “Peter Pan” is the Disney animated version, and those – like me – who know that the Mary Martin version is the “real” one. Of course, both are based on J.M Barrie’s original 1904 script for a British “panto”. The musical Martin brought to television after its triumph on Broadway used much of the original script, adding the music of Morris (Moose) Charlap with additions by Jule Styne, and the lyrics of Carolyn Leigh plus Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

Since then, all productions of this musical version, whether Sandy Duncan’s and, later, Cathy Rigby’s Broadway hits, or more local productions, have honored the panto format: that is, the tradition of having one character (in this case, Peter) played by a cross-dressing performer. In other words, in live theater Peter has always been played by a woman, the most convincingly boyish being former Olympic gymnast Rigby.

Now the folks at Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater have decided to defy tradition, go literal, and have Peter be played by a male. Add to this the challenge, well met, of having people fly on a stage notably lacking the “flies” – the large space above a stage where rigging and set pieces can hang out of view – and one could not help but be curious. Besides, who doesn’t have moments of wanting to sing “I Won’t Grow Up”?

For the show to work, four characters (or three actors) have to be top-notch, and play their often deeply silly parts absolutely straight. Gavin Juckette makes an earnestly boyish Peter, with the serious sense of fun which makes the piece work, even if in defiance of tradition. Randy Ingram, in a practice which does keep to tradition, in the dual parts of Mr. Darling and Captain Hook gives each character individuality, but in both a delightfully overblown sense of self-importance.

In the somewhat treacherous role of “Indian Princess” Tiger Lily – always a cartoon, as it would be if made up by a prepubescent British boy – Amaris Griggs dances well, proves commanding, and by dealing with Peter as an equal squashes some of one’s disquiet over the role’s stereotypical underpinnings. Valerie Rose Lohman balances the budding-woman and little-girl-fantasy aspects of Wendy, with Andrew Bar as John and Asher Broberg as Michael doing a lovely job as the Darling children.

Add to all of this a delightful collection of lost boys, rather inept pirates (especially Thomas Stanley as Smee – always a personal favorite), and forest animals in an ensemble who bring Neverland to life, and you have a genuinely lovely time.

John LaLonde’s direction keeps the pace moving and the relationships between these fantasy characters engaging. He knows how to use the Candlelight space, using needed entrances and exits through the audience to scoop everyone into the spirit of the thing. Kirklyn Robinson’s choreography uses the comparatively small Candlelight stage particularly well, keeping the atmosphere and energy of the piece. Douglas Austin, as musical director, has given the ensemble a lovely blend.

Kudos also to Chuck Ketter for yet another set fitting a great deal into a small space. The lighting design by Aspen Rogers and Jonathan Daroca, including the character of Tinkerbell, make the piece work as it does.

If you have somehow never seen “Peter Pan,” this is a good one, even if a bit nontraditional. If you wish to introduce a new generation to the magic “Peter” has brought to the young for over 100 years, I’d go see this version, which comes with a lovely meal (including a kids menu). One warning: tickets are scarce. Get on a waiting list if you need to.

What: “Peter Pan” When: through August 17, doors open for dinner 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and for lunch matinees 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $63 – $78 adult, $30 – $35 children 12 and under, meal inclusive. Info: (909) 626-1254 ext. 1 or www.thecpdt.com

Corny but Polished: “42nd Street” at Candlelight Pavilion

"Listen to the Lullaby of Old Broadway" at Candlelight Pavilion's "42nd Street" [photo:  Demetrios Katsantonis]

“Listen to the Lullaby of Old Broadway” at Candlelight Pavilion’s “42nd Street” [photo: Demetrios Katsantonis]

Sometimes one goes to the theater for something profound. Sometimes one goes for something which will leave behind an underlying message to be chewed over a bit for its power or its emotional impact. Sometimes one goes to the theater for distraction, and for fun, with nothing more profound required than songs, dances and general earnest silliness. When this last is your goal, what better show than “42nd Street”? And what better venue than Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, where you get to add a charming dinner to the mix.

There are three things necessary for a production of “42nd Street” to succeed. First, corny though it is, it must be played straight. Second, just about everyone in the cast has to be able to tap dance, and well. Third, the leads must radiate an innate innocence. All of these can be found in Candlelight’s production. The tale, silly as it is – and borrowed from the 1933 movie of the same name – uses the music of Harry Warren and Al Dubin, who wrote songs for a string of Warner Brothers hits in the early era of sound. The classic story of “small town girl makes good on the Great White Way” blends all of the elements which made those early talkies historic.

Peggy Sawyer, newly in New York from Allentown, Pennsylvania, manages to snag a part in a Broadway show which, at the height of the Depression, is a lifesaver for many of the “kids” in the cast. In this she is aided by Billy Lawlor, the show-within-a-show’s youthful tenor, though she runs up against the pompous, aging Dorothy Brock, who is not only the star of that show but has brought along the sugar daddy who will fund the production. When Dorothy breaks an ankle, exacting director Julian Marsh must search immediately for a replacement or the entire show will fold. Will Peggy be up to the leap which will make her “go on a showgirl, but come off a star”?

Director/choreographer DJ Gray has a strong command of this particular genre of musical, and has gathered a fine cast of dancers to provide the backdrop to the storyline. Indeed, top quality tap sets the stage for the rest of the production’s finest aspects. Emma Nossal gives Peggy the sweet combination of determination and innocence so necessary to the atmosphere of the show, and sings and dances up a storm. John LaLonde’s commanding presence and deeply resonant voice make him a perfect Julian Marsh. Michael Milligan gives Pretty Lady’s (the show within a show) youthful tenor the combination of ego and zing necessary to make him an engaging foil.

Sarah Meals does well as the pompous, aging star of the show, while John Nisbet has a lot of fun as the kiddy car king able to finance the entire production. Shannon Gerrity leads the chorus in support of Peggy’s chances, while Cynthia Caldwell and Josh Tangermann, as Pretty Lady’s writing team, become more actively engaged in the performance of the thing than usual. Among a large (by Candlelight standards) and highly gifted chorus, Chad Takeda proves a standout as the slinky thief in an otherwise period tap ballet to the show’s title tune, rather as if Bob Fosse’s choreographic concepts had invaded that sphere.

Gray has a strong sense of the purpose of this kind of show, and that is evident throughout. The costumes and wigs are right. The pacing and timbre of the piece keep it light and mildly silly. The skills of the performers are solid and highly entertaining to watch. The singing, under the musical direction of Douglas Austin, proves so organic it makes one forget the fact the orchestra was recorded ahead of time. In short “42nd Street,” as done by this company, is all one can hope for with a show of this type. That it comes with a lovely meal means one can guarantee a lighthearted, upbeat evening. In times like these, opting for the occasional bit of fluffy froth isn’t necessarily out of place.

What: “42nd Street” When: Through March 25, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 5 p.m. Sundays, with doors opening for lunch matinees at 11 a.m. Saturday and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $61-$76 adults, $30-$35 children 12 and under, meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254 ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

Polished Classic: “Oklahoma” arrives at Candlelight Pavilion

The cast of Candlelight Pavilion's "Oklahoma" in a celebrative moment [photo: Demetrius Katsantonis]

The cast of Candlelight Pavilion’s “Oklahoma” in a celebrative moment [photo: Demetrius Katsantonis]

In March of 1943, deep in the midst of World War II, a musical arrived on Broadway which would redefine the genre. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma” not only integrated all its songs into the storyline, it used dance as a vehicle for expanding the tale itself. This original production, which starred a cast of comparative unknowns – most notably Howard Da Silva and Celeste Holm – and featured choreography by the innovatively balletic Agnes De Mille, revolutionized everything about the way the American musical would be seen from that point on.

Which is good to remember when a chance to see this great classic appears on the scene. This thing is not to be dismissed as silly, syrupy or just an antique. Now in a solid production at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont, one is reminded of its complexity: it has some darker overtones, and a consistent flavor only accented – rather than interrupted – by songs and dance. There’s humor, a certain amount of pathos, and a chance to see something that changed an art form.

The story, taken from Lynn Riggs’ play “Green Grow the Lilacs,” uses the tale of the romance of Curly the cowboy and Laurie the farm owner to watch the period of Oklahoma’s transition from cow country to settled farmland, and from territory to much-anticipated statehood. In the midst of this there is tension, a certain amount of frontier justice, folksy cooperation, and a quiet undercurrent of danger. And, of course, there’s a romance to center the whole thing upon.

Gregg Hammer makes a likable Curly, and sings with confidence some of the show’s most iconic songs. Michaelia Leigh gives Laurie that combination of youthful nervousness, even petulance, and genuine feeling, and also sings well. Michael Skrzek creates a truly goofy Will Parker, the knuckle-headed cowboy with his heart set on the rather amoral Ado Annie. Monica Ricketts has just the right timbre and carefree attitude to make Ado Annie his comic counterpart.

Jonathan Arana has a lovely time with the slippery, but generally good-hearted traveling peddler Ali Hakim. Still, the finest performance of the night is Jeffrey Ricca’s Judd Fry. Ricca makes him far more real than sometimes, and more subtly menacing, letting loose the dark side of the west in a very convincing way. Also worthy of note are the solidly practical Dynell Leigh as Aunt Eller, and Sam Nisbett as Ado Annie’s frustrated father.

The choreography, listed as recreated from the original by Dustin Ceithamer is actually more of a combination of his spin on the original and the original itself. This was made a bit more tricky on opening night by an injury to one of the ensemble dancers in a final rehearsal – something the cast handled with extraordinary aplomb. Dylan Pass and Stephanie Urko make nice work of Dream Curley and Dream Laurie during that most pivotal sequence.

Director Chuck Ketter has a feel for this material that shows throughout. The pacing is tight and the interrelationships easy to follow. His set design is a big help in this, as a few major pieces and occasional drapes allow things to move from scene to scene with little interruption.

And then, of course, there is that classic music. Some of these songs have become part of America’s DNA, and it is important to get them right. Music Director Douglas Austin, with this show, celebrates his 100th musical direction gig at the Candlelight Pavilion, and there’s a reason he keeps being asked back. He has a feel for the room, and for how to fill it when the music demands solid emotion.

So, go take in “Oklahoma.” If you’ve never had the chance to see it live, to have Curley walk past you celebrating “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” you’ve really missed out. And here it comes with a good dinner.

What: “Oklahoma” When: Through April 9, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, and for lunch at 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $58 – $73 general, $30 – #35 children under 12 Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

A Tuneful Mash-Up: the new-old “Sound of Music” in Claremont

Sarah Elizabeth Combs as Maria, teaches the von Trapp children to sing in Candlelight Pavilion's "Sound of Music"

Sarah Elizabeth Combs as Maria, teaches the von Trapp children to sing in Candlelight Pavilion’s “Sound of Music”

The new, and extremely well performed production of “The Sound of Music” at Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont provided another fascination I had not expected. The script sent from the Rodgers and Hammerstein Company is a mash-up of stage and screen versions which first appeared for the Broadway revival in 1998. Trying to honor both is a tricky business, and ends up making some attitude shifts a bit abrupt. It aims to appease the movie buffs yet leaves some of the characterizations from the starker stage original. Thanks to a good cast, the results are generally good, but a bit startling nonetheless.

Understand that the 1959 stage musical – the last written by Rodgers and Hammerstein, as Oscar Hammerstein died not long after it opened – is vastly different from the famed 1965 film in specifics, though not in general story line. For example, several songs, including the sardonic “How Can Love Survive,” “No Way to Stop It” and “Ordinary Couple” were removed for the film, and replaced with songs Rodgers wrote alone: “I Have Confidence,” and “Something Good.”

Though included in the stage version, “The Lonely Goatherd” and “My Favorite Things” were shifted to different scenes in the film, as was much of the chant-based religious music sung by the nuns. The Baroness out for Von Trapp’s hand is far more conniving in the stage version, with the scent of a collaborator on her as thoroughly as that on a decidedly less lovable Max. Anyone who sees the show in its original onstage version after falling in love with the film is bound to find the shift rather startling, and perhaps even disappointing.

At the Candlelight, they have handled this reimagining as well as one could hope. The Baroness is still a stinker, and “How Can Love Survive” underscores that, though it is the only one of the “dropped” songs to survive. “I Have Confidence” heralds Maria’s arrival at the Von Trapp household, and “Favorite Things” appears at the same spot – Maria’s bedroom during a storm – as in the film. “Something Good” replaces “Ordinary Couple” as the second act love song, and “Lonely Goatherd” has a brand new spot as the kids’ performance at the music festival. In the end, though a fine production, it leaves bits of character and story kind of hanging out there, while trying to be the best of both worlds.

Dimyana Pelev as the wealthy Baroness, and John LaLonde as Capt. von Trapp

Dimyana Pelev as the wealthy Baroness, and John LaLonde as Capt. von Trapp

Fortunately, a really fine batch of performers keeps too much from getting lost in the interweaving of story lines. Sarah Elizabeth Combs has an innate sweetness, a lovely voice, and enough gumption to make a charming Maria. John LaLonde makes a commanding figure as Captain von Trapp, though one wishes he had the chance to build up his singing of “Edelwiess” enough to make his emotional catch make sense.

Kim Blake gets better and better as the Mother Superior. Jod Orrison, Valerie Jasso and Kate Lee cluck and hover appropriately as the other rather critical nuns. Dimyana Pelev, despite a mildly unfortunate wig, makes a neatly calculating Baroness Elsa, while Frank Minano has fun with the sponging Max. Zack Crocker makes a charmingly youthful Rolf, and Courtney Cheatham matches him neatly as the adolescent Leisl.

The other children, Katie Ochoa, Matthew Funke, Haven Watts, Wyatt Larrabee, Brooklyn Vizcarra and Alison Bradbard the night I saw it (most are double-cast) are almost surprisingly good for a company this size. They sing and dance well, virtually all of the time, and work together as a unit to excellent effect. This sense of polish extends to the small but well utilized ensemble which supports these major players.

Director Douglas Austin has worked particularly hard to create the sense of ensemble, particularly between the main adults and the children. The results are self-evident, as the show flows as smoothly as this new script will let it. Chuck Ketter’s scenic design manages to make that tiny stage look mansion-like, which is no small feat. The lighting design of Steve Giltner works as well as possible, given a technical glitch or two.

In short, the results of this production are more charming than not, once you get over the differences from what you expect. It’s perfect family fare, and comes complete with a fine dinner (including kid-friendly fare) so another generation can fall in love with the girl who unites a family through music and evades the Nazis through love. That it bears only vague resemblance to the actual story of the actual Von Trapp Family Singers long ago became inconsequential.

What: “The Sound of Music” When: Through March 24, Thursday through Saturday dinners at 6 p.m., Sunday dinners at 5 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday brunch at 11 a.m. Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theatre, 455 W. Foothill Blvd in Claremont How Much: $53 – $68 adults, $25 children 12 and under, meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254 ext 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

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